Rail 998: Great British Railways is a lost cause


It has been clear for a long time that the proposed legislation for the railways which would formally create Great British Railways was not going to be put forward in this Parliament. This was confirmed in the King’s speech last month when, instead of launching the legislative process, it was announced that there would be the rather strange procedure of a debate over a draft bill but with nothing going on to the statute book.

The excuse that there was insufficient time does not hold water. There was indeed time for two transport bills, the automated vehicles bill and the Pedicabs (London) bill. While the automated vehicles legislation is the result of a four year study by the Law Commission and is a thorough piece of legislation, it is about a mode of travel that does not exist and is unlikely to come to fruition soon, if ever. As for the pedicab bill, that is a real Beltway issue, as they say in America, a law that no one really cares about except a few politicians and lobbyists. Not only have railways, which are far more important, been neglected, but the government has also ducked the issue of regulating electric scooters which have already been responsible for 25 deaths and yet have no legal framework, apart from a few big city hire schemes, in which to operate.

Since this is the last Parliamentary session before a general election and there is little (no? ed) chance of the present lot surviving in power, drawing up a Bill that enshrines the Tories’ vision for the railways makes no sense. Labour has made no bones about its plans to renationalise the railways and therefore the legislation for Great British Railways is unlikely to suit their purpose. Admittedly, there is some thinking that the present Bill could be adapted to meet Labour’s plans if the party forms the new government, but that will be up to future ministers to decide. Having a Tory draft bill is unlikely to be helpful and could be just an unwelcome distraction – which may be why the Tories have done this.

Secondly, it has been known for some time that the bill drafted with the support of the Great British Railways transition team is a relatively simply measure with, at most, ten clauses. Mark Harper, the transport secretary, accepted this when he appeared last month at the Commons Transport Select Committee which, incidentally, is the body that will scrutinise the draft bill and even take evidence from witnesses on it. Harper even said that the bill is ‘in good shape’ and therefore the fact that it is not going through Parliament in this session is even stranger.

And then, thanks to some excellent questioning by the chairman of the committee, Iain Stewart, the Conservative MP for Milton Keynes, we finally got an explanation on why the legislation has been designed and it highlights precisely why it has proved so difficult for a Tory government to pass a law that increases control by government of the rail industry. Having confirmed to the committee that legislation in this Parliament would not be passed despite apparently being ready, he then rowed back and explained why it could not go forward: ‘Given the debate over it, people’s views about it are not that straightforward. There is still quite a difference of opinion about what people are trying to achieve with the legislation, and there are different views from different parts of industry, so the scrutiny process is valuable’.

This is something of a ‘wow’ moment. Harper is essentially saying that five years from the 2018 May timetable debacle that triggered the whole change process,  two years since the publication of the Williams Shapps report recommending the creation of GBR and after mopre than £50m has been spent on the transition team, the government is still unclear about what precisely the legislation is for. It has now embarked on another consultation process despite having already had one. Savour that for a moment, or possibly sigh with despair.

Harper went on: ‘There will be a debate about the extent to which Ministers are still accountable. The Government have some views about that. There is clearly a balance to strike between bringing track and train together, making operational day-to-day decisions, and recognising that, certainly at the moment and probably for a number of years, there is still an important role for the taxpayer, given the 25per cent to 30 per cent revenue reduction in real terms that the industry has faced’.

In other words, while some in the Tory party would like to see a hands off approach, with the new railway organisation being given a relatively free hand to spend money as it sees fit, others – notably I suspect the Treasury – are less sanguine about allowing the railways so much leeway.

Harper went on to say that ‘There is some complexity around governance and accountability, and

those matters are not straightforward.’ Indeed, but one would have hoped that in five years of discussion about what should be done to improve the structures within the railway, ministers would not have to start all over again with yet more consultation.

Essentially, therefore, the delay in the legislation has been the result of internal rows within the Tory party. In truth, there is no simple way out of this. The fundamental difficulty boils down to ideology. Harper repeated the old trope that it is only the private sector which will respond to financial incentives that are designed to increase passenger numbers. The current structure, with all the financial risk being taken by the government, will, according to Harper and those around him, will mean there is no mechanism to stimulate growth. I have always argued that this is nonsense, and as I set out in great detail in my book on British Rail (the paperback of BR: a new history is now out) in the last decade of its existence, the organisation managed to fulfil both its commercial and social obligations efficiently and effectively.

The problem facing those drawing up the legislation is that Harper wants to transfer some of the revenue risk to the private sector, but this is impossible to do if operations and infrastructure are brought together in a single organisation. Once any risk is handed over, the whole panoply of bean counters attributing delays, which GBR was supposed to dispense with, will have to be retained – and therefore hoped-for savings from cutting back on bureaucracy cannot be realised. You cannot really have the half-privatised train operators which Harper seeks to retain if you want the new structure to be less expensive to run.

That highlights the fundamental ideological difference between the two parties and explains why the legislation has proved so difficult to bring forward. However, this uncertainty, as many readers working in the industry know all too well, is deeply damaging for the railways. Harper effectively confirmed that this limbo situation will remain until the general election.

Labour, therefore, has to have its plans ready and hit the ground running when it takes office. I will be writing about what the party should do in the New Year but your thoughts will be most welcome – do email me at christian.wolmar@gmail.com


Government and railways: inseparable but a toxic mix


Given the adjoining piece, it is timely that my selection as the best railway book I have read this year concerns the ever fraught relationship between government and railways. Chris Austin and (Lord) Richard Faulkner who previously wrote a couple of excellent books on the political history of the railways have used their excellent research skills to uncover a whole series of new insights into this ever troublesome relationship. The book, which is very nicely illustrated too, has an engaging title Signals Passed at Danger and is takes the story through from the first involvement of the state in railway affairs through nationalisation (like me, praising many aspects of BR) to privatisation and today’s rather chaotic situation.

One key point that they make in the introduction is one which the future Labour government should consider: ‘what are the railways for?’ As they write, the only attempt to define that has been in the Williams Shapps review published two years ago and even that rather skirted over the subject. Moreover, there has been no attempt to assess the wider value of the railway to society. As I have argued many times, the railways have both a commercial function and a social one. All too often the latter has been forgotten. It is only by knowing the value of the railway to society as a whole and explaining why we subsidise the railways that the general public can understand their importance. Certainly this book should be required reading for any future transport minister.




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